Health campaigners will hold crisis talks over concern ambulance response times in the far north could result in tragedy.
Caithness Health Action Team (Chat) claims it is receiving complaints on a daily basis about lengthy waits for paramedics, and hospital appointments being cancelled due to the lack of an ambulance.
Now members will meet Scottish Ambulance Service’s north service manager Graham Cormack and north deputy regional direction Andrew Fuller next week.
While the group acknowledge there are a number of factors causing pressure on ambulance response times, they will push for a resolution.
A spokeswoman said: “We’re being treated like second class citizens up here.
“It’s absolutely no reflection on the ambulance and other NHS staff who are very professional and highly trained and want to do the best for their communities.
“It’s the system that is failing and there’s a real fear here that there is going to be a tragedy if it isn’t fixed.”
‘Service does not meet needs of community’
Chat referred to one case where a family sought help for a child who had breathing difficulties.
They phoned 999 at 9.30pm and ended up waiting eight hours in the accident and emergency unit in Caithness General Hospital before the child was transferred to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, not arriving there until noon the following day.
“That was not a one-off,” said the Chat spokeswoman.
“We’re getting stories like that on a daily basis involving everyone from very young children to the elderly.
“The bottom line is that there doesn’t appear to be a service in place that is meeting the needs of the community.
“It’s quite frightening how vulnerable we are.”
Action is ‘definitely required’
Chat believes “a perfect storm” has arisen to create the current crisis.
Apart from Covid-related issues, the group believes the service continues to be stretched by the increased demand it has had from the downgrading of the Caithness maternity service, meaning nearly all pregnant women give birth in Raigmore.
Chat also believes the hike in fuel and general living costs means more people are making use of the patient transfer service.
The spokeswoman said: “The stories we are getting are really, really concerning but we want to meet with the managers first before we decide on how to take this forward.
“But action is definitely required before lives end up being lost as things only seem to be getting worse.”
A SAS spokeswoman said its service throughout the country continues to be put under pressure from Covid-19-related issues.
She said: “Our staff in the Highlands and across Scotland have shown remarkable commitment and resilience over the last two years as they continue to work hard to help patients and save lives.
“As restrictions ease, our services will continue to be reviewed to maximise capacity and capability in line with infection prevention control guidance.”
She said a review has resulted in extra investment for stations in Thurso and Wick while a new roster has been implemented to improve ambulance cover in Caithness.
She added: “Recruitment is also under way for additional technicians and paramedics in the area, which will further boost our resource capability for responding to patients.”
Anyone who has a recent experience of ambulance delays for an emergency or patient transfer can share their story with Chat by e-mailing email@example.com – all personal details will be kept confidential.